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Foreword: Russia-China Relations

Robert Sutter

PDF free through September 15, 2017.

The United States has a long experience in assessing the twists and turns of the relationship between Russia and China and what it means for U.S. interests. [1] The 1950s and 1960s saw Washington monitoring the initially strong and later frayed Sino-Soviet alliance for threats and opportunities. President Richard Nixon crafted his opening to Mao Zedong amid acute Sino-Soviet military tension and forecasts of war. [2] The successful opening established a new framework for analyzing relations between the United States, China, and the Soviet Union. This so-called great-power triangle became a focal point of U.S. efforts to sustain an advantageous position in relations with Beijing and Moscow. [3]

The imperative to monitor changing Russian-Chinese relations declined with the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet threat, but it rose again at the turn of the century. Repeated government estimates and supporting scholarship assessed the implications of growing convergence between Moscow and Beijing. Since Russia and China at the time were both weaker than they are today and seemed reluctant to challenge the United States, despite rhetoric and diplomatic activism to the contrary, Sino-Russian cooperation appeared to have few substantial strategic implications for U.S. interests. [4] In recent years, however, China has become much stronger and Russia is now somewhat stronger. As a result, Russian leaders, and to a lesser degree Chinese leaders, have demonstrated much more willingness to challenge U.S. interests.

Growing Challenges for the United States

Common interests, opposition to U.S. pressure, and the perceived decline of the West have prompted Russian-Chinese relations to advance in ways that seriously affect the interests of the United States and its allies and partners. Russia and China pose growing challenges to the U.S.-supported order in their priority spheres of concern—for Russia, Europe and the Middle East, and for China, its continental and maritime peripheries. They work separately and together to curb U.S. power and influence in the political, economic, and security domains and undermine the United States’ relations with its allies and partners in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. These joint efforts include diplomatic, security, and economic measures in multilateral forums and bilateral relations with U.S. adversaries such as North Korea, Iran, and Syria. Moscow and Beijing also support one another in the face of U.S. and allied complaints about Russian and Chinese coercive expansion and other steps challenging the regional order and global norms backed by the United States.

While not a formal alliance, the Sino-Russian relationship has gone well beyond the common view a decade ago that it represented an “axis of convenience” with limited impact on U.S. interests. The forces driving Russia and China to closer cooperation at the United States’ expense clearly overshadow factors working against such cooperation.

  • The drivers include a determination to counterbalance U.S. influence, especially in their respective areas of concern. A strong common identity and strategic culture shared by the top leaders of both countries incline them toward opposition to the United States.
  • The brakes on closer bilateral cooperation against U.S. interests involve the growing asymmetry between China and Russia in terms of economic and military power and influence, increasingly relegating Russia to the role of a junior partner—a status causing concern in Moscow. The two powers also diverge in important ways in how they deal with the United States and other countries. Vladimir Putin’s stance against the United States is harder than that of Xi Jinping, who still avows seeking a positive China-U.S. relationship.

The United States’ ability to deal with these challenges is commonly seen as in decline. The U.S. position in the triangular relationship has deteriorated, to the satisfaction of leaders in Moscow and Beijing opportunistically seeking to advance their power and influence. Russia’s tensions with the West and ever-deepening dependence on China, combined with constructive U.S. engagement of China, have given Beijing the advantageous “hinge” position in the triangle that Washington used to occupy.

The Road Ahead

This NBR Special Report collects papers presented at a workshop convened by the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR) on January 26–27, 2017. The papers were later revised to respond to subsequent developments and incorporate feedback from workshop participants and peer reviewers. Each essay shows how the United States is affected by the prevailing trajectory in Russian-Chinese relations and illustrates ways in which the United States can improve its position and attempt to counteract the adverse effects.

Evan S. Medeiros and Michael S. Chase examine the Chinese perspective on the Sino-Russian relationship and demonstrate that a convergence of geopolitical, economic, diplomatic, and security interests will likely draw Beijing and Moscow even closer together in the foreseeable future. To counteract this trend, the United States should adopt a coherent and consistent set of policies to safeguard its interests and those of its allies and partners. Eugene B. Rumer’s essay specifically warns that despite lingering tensions in Sino-Russian relations, a political opening with Russia is unlikely, would do little to aid U.S. objectives in the Asia-Pacific, and might embolden Russia to engage in geopolitical maneuvering in the European theater. Richard Weitz’s essay in part suggests that the United States could implement more assertive policies, such as sanctions, to wedge against the growing security ties between China and Russia. Such a stance, however, risks driving the two states closer together rather than apart. Ambassador J. Stapleton Roy’s essay concluding this report shows that through effective economic and military policies and adroit statecraft the United States would be better-positioned within the triangular relationship to lead efforts to counter Sino-Russia cooperation.

This report marks the end of the first phase of a three-part, two-year NBR project—supported by a generous grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York—examining the strategic implications of the advancing Sino-Russian relationship. The first phase of the project sought to provide a comprehensive understanding of the respective roles of Russia and China in challenging the existing international order and the degree of mutual collaboration in their endeavors.

The essays in this report benefited from critiques by six prominent scholars and practitioners serving as senior advisers to the project, ten other commissioned papers and formal presentations at workshops in December 2016 and January 2017, and deliberations at those and other meetings by 70 leading specialists from the United States, Russia, China, and Japan. The project now has a clearer view of the status, trajectory, and implications of recent Russian-Chinese relations.

On this basis, the focus of the second phase of the project will be on discerning appropriate U.S. policy options. Some options may involve imposing greater costs on Russia and China, and some could involve more cooperative U.S. relations with each country. Determining what combination is best is further complicated by recent volatility in U.S. foreign relations, particularly relations with Russia and China, and by major controversy in the United States over relations with the Russian government. This second phase will involve close consultations with U.S. government and congressional policymakers and convene workshops featuring leading specialists from the United States, Russia, and China to provide a comprehensive and authoritative assessment of U.S. policy options.

Robert Sutter
George Washington University

Robert Sutter is Professor of Practice of International Affairs at George Washington University.


[1] Authoritative literature in this field is enormous. Salient overviews are Lowell Dittmer, Sino-Soviet Normalization and Its International Implications, 1945–1990 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1992); Odd Arne Westad, ed., Brothers in Arms: The Rise and Fall of the Sino-Soviet Alliance, 1945–1963 (Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press with Stanford University Press, 1998); Gordon Chang, Friends and Enemies: The United States, China, and the Soviet Union, 1948–1972 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990); Lorenz M. Lüthi, The Sino-Soviet Split: Cold War in the Communist World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008); and Bobo Lo, Axis of Convenience: Moscow, Beijing, and the New Geopolitics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

[2] “The USSR and China,” U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, no. 11/13-69, August 12, 1969,

[3] Luella S. Christopher, United States–Soviet Union–China: The Great Power Triangle (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1997).

[4] “Russian-Chinese Relations: Prospects and Implications (Update),” U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, no. 2000-10C, September 2000,